Ash is Malinda Lo's first novel. It's Cinderella retold:
In the wake of her father's death, Ash is left at the mercy of her cruel stepmother. Consumed with grief, her only joy comes by the light of the dying hearth fire, rereading the fairy tales her mother once told her. In her dreams, someday the fairies will steal her away, as they are said to do. When she meets the dark and dangerous fairy Sidhean, she believes that her wish may be granted.
The day that Ash meets Kaisa, the King's Huntress, her heart begins to change. Instead of chasing fairies, Ash learns to hunt with Kaisa. Though their friendship is as delicate as a new bloom, it reawakens Ash's capacity for love-and her desire to live. But Sidhean has already claimed Ash for his own, and she must make a choice between fairy tale dreams and true love.
Entrancing, empowering, and romantic, Ash is about the connection between life and love, and solitude and death, where transformation can come from even the deepest grief.
I would have killed for this story 35 years ago, just killed: fantasy, woods, fairies, girl-on-girl love. There was nothing like it, then. Nothing.
You know the story of Cinderella. In this version, Ash, short for Aisling (the author tells me her name is pronounced ASH-ling, though I spent the whole book pronouncing it in my head as Ash-LEEN, sigh), falls in love with a fairy (a boy) and then with the king's huntress. Aisling's emotional journey, from loved and privileged girl child to despised young serving woman, is clearly and simply written, though never simplistic. (I particularly enjoyed her multi-layered relationship with her two stepsisters.)
For one thing, there's that fairy. He is taken very much from the elf model (see my post about gender and elves and Anglo-Saxons). Toying with his affections is about as safe as playing with nitroglycerin. And, indeed, Ash does pay a real price; Lo doesn't flinch from that. My favourite bit of the book comes near the end, when it's time for Ash to pay for the party favours (literally, party favours--though the glamours Sidhean offers Ash for the various balls etc. are high end, definitely not cheap). Ash asks him, Will I die? And he says, Only a little. Ooof. Great stuff.
It's a lovely, gentle--yet, as I've said, unflinching--book. Ash's change is one many lesbians go through: head turned by some boy glam and the promise of belonging, followed by the understanding that the promise is not real, it can't be real, it's a fairytale. Malinda Lo makes that metaphor--fairytale love vs. reality--concrete. I the book cover to cover without stopping, despite having read an early draft. I'm biased, given my early input, but I think Lo has done a fine job of using the environmental details, particularly the woods, to mirror her protagonist's emotional state. (As far I'm concerned, that's what a novelistic environment is for...)
Lo, who is Asian American, writes here about how she handled the issue of race in the book. I have some thoughts on that but I'll let you read the author's thoughts first. If you like the way she talks about her work, watch this:
Then go read her talking on John Scalzi's blog about her approach to same-sex relationships in fantasy fiction. (And, oh, you know I have most definite notions about that--but go read Lo's comments first.)
And then, hey, go buy the book. Even better, give it to some thirteen-year old you know. It might change her life; it would have changed mine.